Commentary

Question 4 Will Eliminate Low-Wage Jobs, Not Low Wages

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Something I will occasionally do while going through checkout at a store is ask the cashier what he or she thinks of the self-checkout machines at the end of the checkout lanes.

Not to disparage the hard working American, but normally, all I receive in reply is a blank face of confusion. Maybe they just don’t know why I’d ask such a question, or maybe they didn’t think they were supposed to have a formulated opinion on the robotic cashier across the aisle. It’s certainly easier to acknowledge the new machine’s existence than to understand why it exists.

I’ll tell you what it means though. The free market is built upon competitiveness; the most useful player wins, and everyone else needs to find something else they’re more useful at.

Machines are the ultimate competitor because they don’t stop for coffee, don’t stop working unless they are shut down or broken and don’t cost much after the initial purchase. The only thing holding machines back is whether they can actually compete. Fifty years ago, a cash register needed a cashier. Now, a modern self-checkout only needs a paying customer.

As technology advances, the price of automated workers goes down, and those automated workers’ abilities go up. In the end, it is inevitable that we are going to have to deal with this situation of robots replacing humans in the workplace; it will leave the realm of fantastic science-fiction movies and enter the real world, where honest people will be losing their jobs because they are no longer competitive.

Cashiers and other workers are becoming uncompetitive in the face of robotic competition. While this is a great day for technology and theorized easier living, it is the death-knell for basic honest jobs.

This situation will have to be dealt with at some point in the future, but that doesn’t mean we are ready to deal with it now. This crisis may be thrust upon us by November via referendum.

Question 4 will raise the minimum wage to $9 dollars immediately, to $12 dollars by 2020 and continue raising it on a regular basis by attaching it to inflation. Not only that, it will raise the minimum direct wage of service workers who receive tips to the same higher wage. This sounds wonderful to the minimum wage worker who blankly stares at the new checkout machine, but it worries me considerably.

The former CEO of McDonalds recently stated that at current costs, a robotic arm to load French fries costs less over time than a $15 dollar an hour worker doing the same job. For those places considering a $15 dollar minimum wage, they are actually proposing the elimination of myriad low-wage jobs, not the elimination of low wages.

By 2020 there may well be a machine which can replace the $12 dollar wage worker, and ballot question number 4 proposes to put us on a collision course with that reality. This is a situation which is not going to go away, as automated worker prices will continue to go down, but that doesn’t mean we need to go charging into it.

This is almost literally like a deer standing in the way of a careening car’s headlights, except in this case we’re the deer being overrun by a machine. This situation is serious enough that Europe is considering placing a tax on automated workers, to pay into their version of social security for the soon to be unemployed workers.

This dilemma will have to be dealt with at some point; I merely propose that we don’t go careening into it by making our already sagging work force even less competitive.

I don’t know what the solution is going to be, I only know that I see blank faces staring back at me, not just from the service workers who don’t see the problem literally bolted to the floor beside them, but in the machines themselves; unfeeling, unthinking machines with no human empathy.

If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up with all the checkout stations being blank faced robots. Perhaps in New York, where people are so numerous on the streets, it would be nice to get away from people by replacing them with machines, but I don’t think that’s the way Maine is. We like life here, we like interaction and we like people. I don’t want the human faces of cashiers to be replaced by the blank, beeping faces of machines.

I don’t want to see an end to the human element, not in Maine.

About Joshua Durgin

Joshua Durgin works with his father as a Maine lobsterman while taking classes from St. Joseph’s College on psychology and criminal justice. He was homeschooled by his mother, a public school teacher for over thirty years, with special attention to reading and history. In his spare time he enjoys music and debating every philosophical topic under and including the sun. He also gives presentations on politics and theology to those who are interested.

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